Flying the flag for a great culinary tradition

Michael Jackson liked them with mushy peas, Churchill called them “good companions” while John Lennon smothered them in ketchup.

Yes, fish and chips have a great tradition and, for many British people in Brussels, are a much missed favourite.

The good news is that there’s a place here that’s doing its bit to keep the flag flying in Belgium for this somewhat underrated food.

It’s called Bia Mara and the even better news is that the food is rather good.

So much so, in fact, that since the first Bia Mara opened – near the Grand Place in Brussels – the concept has really taken off and proved a big hit, both with expats and lots of other nationalities.

The second to open was in Antwerp, close to the city’s cathedral and right at the heart of its historic quarter, and the third was in Place de Londres, very close to the European parliament.

The owners, two young Irishmen who started out on a market stall, have now opened their fourth Bia Mara, in the Flemish student city of Leuven.

For those unfamiliar with Bia Mara is a fish and chip place with a slight difference.

Unlike the sometimes very ordinary fare served at similar outlets in the UK this place offers “spicy” fish, an innovative twist on the more traditional version served in Blighty.

It’s a short menu and the two customer favourites are the classic panko together with the lemon basil infused tempura.

The main difference between the two is the thickness of the batter but both are very good.

The panko is coated with a light Japanese breadcrumb that creates a thin, crusted coating while the tempura has a light Japanese batter which, here, is infused with a zest of citrus.

There are three other options: whole fried sea bream (be warned this is unboned); lime mint and wasabi and, lastly, a fish served the “Argentinian style”.

The card also contains a veggie dish and a couple of chicken options in case fish is not your thing. All the sauces (and there are some spicy ones!) are homemade and the fish comes with lovely seaweed-salted chips.

The Bia Mara owners take particular pride in using, where possible, only seasonal fish and none of the fish used here has travelled far as it comes from the North Sea (the salmon Norwegian). The business only works with small scale fish operators.

Combined with the magical pairing of Belgian beers like Vedett IPA, you can see why the owners Barry Wallace and Simon Whiteside now believe they’ve elevated their novel and original concept to a whole new level.

Fish goes particularly well with white wine as well, of course, and you should try the terrific Portuguese white (Quinta dos Termos), fresh and mineral with a note of Kernel fruits.

There’s also a “student special” deal costing a mere €6 and  also kids portions. In fact, the prices here are very affordable, for example, the classic panko is only €12.

Everything here is very well explained by Lille-born Adrien Labriffe who have lived in Brussels for eight years now and has been the manager at the Place de Londres restaurant since it opened 14 months ago.

He takes the time and trouble to go through the menu, spelling out what each dish comprises and providing lots of useful advice and tips on the food and drink.

This business was launched on the streets of Dublin with one simple idea, to take what can sometimes be a humdrum food - fish and chips – to something quite different.

Don’t come here if you are looking for pretension. It’s all very informal and relaxed but the fish and chips are terrific.

But, under the expert guidance of Simon and Barry – along with their hard working and pleasant teams at each of the four restaurants – Bia Mara has now established itself as a firm favourite on the Belgian culinary scene.

Bia Mara

Place de Londres, Ixelles

02 513 7274

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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